For decades after the discipline of psychiatry had been established as an accepted specialty, many medical schools continued
to fail to train their students in the fundamentals of this discipline. That situation no longer exists. Medical students
all have at least cursory exposure to psychiatric principles and basic psychology.
Unfortunately, the veterinary profession has lagged behind human medicine in the regard. Until recently, veterinary students
received no training in animal behavior, and there were no available residencies within our schools for developing board-certified
That deficiency has now been corrected. Several North American schools offer residencies in behavior. Some schools still do
not have any courses in animal behavior; of those that do, some are elective rather than mandatory. The problem with this
is that the students who elect to take a course in behavior are those who least need it. They are already interested in the
discipline, and even if they do not receive training as students, they are likely to pursue this interest after graduation
and acquire a measure of expertise in it. The disinterested student, on the other hand, needs to be exposed to ethologic principles
to become an optimally effective veterinarian.
I have long held the opinion that every veterinary student should be formally trained in rudimentary ethology and that proficiency
in basic behavior-shaping methods should be demonstrated in state board examinations before a license to practice is granted.
Each species of animal, including the wild ancestors of our domestic species, adapts to its environment in three ways, or
it is doomed to extinction. These three methods of adaptation are anatomic, physiologic, and behavioral. Indeed, behavior
is a physiologic function, enabling the species to survive and perpetuate its kind.
Even if the economic foundation of our profession were not companion animal medicine as it is today, I would feel as I do.
Even if veterinary medicine were dependent on food animals and draft animals as was the case a century ago, I would still
maintain that expertise in animal behavior is essential for the practitioner to best serve his or her patients and their owners.
Clinging to tradition and reluctance to take on new disciplines has cost our profession prestige and income in the past. Examples
of this shortsightedness include poultry practice, artificial insemination, and physical therapy. Because we admitted behavioral
science to our curricula belatedly, there are far more people in the field with degrees in zoology and psychology than there
are veterinarians. Yet I maintain, the doctor of veterinary medicine is the best academically qualified behaviorists if that
individual's training included a suitable course in animal behavior. I say this for the same reason that the best-trained
human behaviorist is the person with a degree in medicine, a person who has gone on to obtain certification in psychiatry.
Why do I say this? There are several reasons.
Many behavioral problems are organic in origin. For example, endocrine disturbances commonly include behavioral aberrations
as part of the presenting signs. The behaviorist whose training has included physiology, endocrinology, and pathology is best
equipped to recognize and cope with such behavior problems.
Many problems respond to one or more of the wide variety of drugs now available to modify animal behavior. Obviously, only
those individuals thoroughly schooled in the discipline of pharmacology can properly use such compounds, and many of the most
effective of these drugs are available by law only by the prescription of a licensed doctor of veterinary medicine.
Of course, a mandatory course in ethology would not along prepare every practitioner to handle all cases. Referral to board-certified
specialists would obviously be necessary, but without basic training, many veterinarians do not refer. They are unaware of
the need for referral or of what can be dome to control and eliminate problems.
Although I have campaigned journalistically and as a speaker for veterinary behavior involvement, I am a bit dismayed by one
aspect that has developed, and that is a tendency to rely too soon, and often exclusively, on behavior-modifying drugs. I
should have anticipated this, because it happened in the human medical field. So many patients who could be helped with correct
behavior-modifying techniques are kicked out into society today with a prescription that they may or may not take. The same
tendency is happening in small animal medicine. It may be quicker and more profitable to sent the client home with medication
for a pet with a behavior problem, but are we always rendering the best possible service by doing so?